ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Tens of thousands of doctors are paid by pharmaceutical companies to spread the word to their peers about certain drugs. That's nothing new, and it is legal. But it's never been easy to find out which doctors are getting paid and how much.
Well, now, the investigative news organization ProPublica, in collaboration with NPR and other news organizations, has put together a database. It includes 17,000 doctors who've received payments for speaking about prescription drugs. Those payments came from seven pharmaceutical companies, some of the world's biggest.
Tracy Weber, a senior reporter for ProPublica, joins me now from New York. And, Tracy, we have information here from seven drug companies, but there are a lot more companies out there. Where do these listings come from?
Ms. TRACY WEBER (Senior Reporter, ProPublica): Well, many of these companies are disclosing this information as a result of federal whistleblower suits, and as part of the settlements, they were required to disclose the lists of their physicians that they pay for speaking and consulting.
SIEGEL: Give us an example of a lawsuit and how the companies ran into trouble.
Ms. WEBER: Well, many of these drug companies have gotten in trouble by attempting to market their drugs for uses that were not approved by the FDA. Most of the lawsuits were spurred when a sales representative or another employee filed a federal whistleblower suit against the company. What's interesting about these suits is, even though we compiled our database, and it shows you a doctor's name and how much they're paid, it doesn't really say what they do for that money. And what these suits do is it gives you a window into some of the activities that physicians were paid for.
SIEGEL: Well, 17,000 doctors and there are some other non-M.D. health professionals involved - but, by far and away, mostly doctors. It's a pretty big database. What can you say about the people on this list?
Ms. WEBER: Well, when we first got the list, we wanted to see who were these people because the drug companies stress that they're picking the most highly respected doctors, physicians who have research or have associations with academic medical centers. We started looking, and, indeed, we found many of those people.
But, surprisingly, we found that many of these physicians had little or no credentials. When we were doing research on them, we could find almost nothing about them. There's 384 doctors who make over $100,000 over the 18-month period the database covers. And of those, 45 of them are not even board-certified in the specialties on which they're speaking. Additionally, we found that many of these, more than 250, had been disciplined by their state medical boards.
SIEGEL: Now, one can go to the database, as I did, I entered my doctor's name, some other doctors I know to see if they have been paid by a drug company. None of them showed up. But this is going to be accessible to people?
Ms. WEBER: It is going to be accessible, and we've gotten a tremendous response. But there is a caveat that, you know, there's nearly 80 drug companies that are active in the United States, and this is just seven. And so you can plug your doctor's name in there, and he might not show up. Or he might show up, but he might also be getting money from seven, eight, nine other companies in our list. When we were doing research, we found some physicians were getting money from up to 20 companies.
SIEGEL: Now, there are doctors in the database, as you say, almost 400 who received over $100,000 during this period, but I saw one doctor from New York who collected about $200 or $300. What's the difference between what they have likely done?
Ms. WEBER: Well, the ones at the top - and my colleague Charlie Ornstein and I interviewed most of the top-paid physicians in the database, and those physicians are actively out there getting, you know, $1,500 to $2,000 for a talk. The doctors at the bottom of the list have maybe just attended something or maybe went and listened to a talk and gave some feedback about a drug company's plans for research or something.
SIEGEL: These lawsuits that produced this information, that resulted in this database becoming public, how big were these lawsuits, and did the pharmaceutical companies admit actual wrongdoing in the course of the settlements?
Ms. WEBER: You know, in the last three years alone, nearly $7 billion in settlements have happened among, you know, a whole group of the largest pharmaceutical companies, you know, ranging from Pfizer's 2.3 billion to Johnson & Johnson's 81 million. You know, in each case, or most of the cases, the companies, despite settling for hundreds of millions of dollars, deny the allegations contained within the lawsuits.
SIEGEL: Tracy Weber, senior reporter for the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. You can find the series of reports called "Dollars for Docs" and the database at npr.org.
Tracey Weber, thanks for talking with us.
Ms. WEBER: Thank you.